Center Hill High School economics teacher Toni Coleman, left, talks with senior Jasmine Ellis after class in Olive Branch on Tuesday, May 7, 2019.

A legislative watchdog committee is warning lawmakers that they do not have up-to-date information to make funding decisions for a teacher merit pay program, and the law as it exists is unclear about the state Department of Education’s responsibility in administering it.

In a report released this week, the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) committee highlighted problems with the controversial Mississippi School Recognition Program and offered suggestions for how lawmakers could improve it.

The Mississippi Legislature in 2014 created the School Recognition Program, which provides financial rewards for educators in school districts with an A rating or districts that move up a letter grade. Since its inception, the Legislature has appropriated $98.6 million for the program, according to the report.

The legislation that created the program “… did not mandate that MDE develop the processes and procedures for implementation of the program, which was a novel financial incentive program that had never been administered by the department,” the report said.

In July, Mississippi Today published a story outlining issues with the merit pay program. While many teachers Mississippi Today spoke with said they were grateful for the money, critics say it causes confusion and in some cases actually decreases morale for educators.

Additionally, the program’s intent to incentivize teachers based on accountability ratings has caused problems, including infighting at the district level about how the money is distributed and who is eligible to receive the funds, according to school officials, lawmakers and education advocates.

The legislative report highlighted examples of how the money has been disbursed in years past. Until recently, the money was distributed by teacher committees which chose who received funds and how much. The report cites examples of schools where teacher committees gave some people as much as $2,200 while others at the same school received just $300. The Mississippi Department of Education changed this last year to require that schools give this money out equally, though Mississippi Today’s analysis found not all schools seem to be doing this.

READ MORE: As Gov. Tate Reeves works to save the School Recognition Program, critics say it ‘intensifies already serious inequality.’

Earlier this year, Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed parts of the $2.2 billion education budget because it did not contain funding for the program, which he supports. The Legislature did ultimately fund the program, setting aside $28 million for the current fiscal year.

How exactly to disburse those funds to schools is complicated, this weeks’ report said. When the coronavirus pandemic forced Mississippi public schools to close their doors in March and cancel state testing, that meant there were no test results to base that year’s accountability ratings on. As a result, the state Board of Education allowed all school districts to retain whatever rating they had from the previous school year. This “presents the Legislature with a conundrum,” the report said, because districts are awarded funds for the program based on accountability ratings.

“Basing a FY 2022 appropriation for the School Recognition Program on ratings that are not up-to-date through assessment testing could result in the Legislature appropriating more or less funds for the program than necessary,” the report said. “For example, allowing districts and schools to retain their previous accountability ratings does not take into account the fact that some districts might have improved in their academic performance while others might have declined—i.e., districts and schools could be overpaid or underpaid due to awards being based on a prior school year’s performance rather than the most recent school year’s performance.”

The PEER report recommends:

  • The Mississippi Legislature should amend the law to officially require the Mississippi Department of Education to enforce the program’s rules and regulations.
  • To avoid confusion about who is eligible to receive the funds, the Legislature should change the word “staff” in the law to “certified employees” if the intent of the law is for certified employees specifically to receive these funds.
  • If the Legislature intends to appropriate funds for the program in the upcoming 2021 legislative session, Mississippi Department of Education staff should present the House and Senate appropriations committees with specific recommendations about how to determine how much funding is necessary, since accountability ratings (which are used to determine funding for the program) for the most recent school year were affected when the pandemic disrupted state testing last school year.
  • The MDE’s rules and regulations should require school districts to post on their websites the total amount of money received by certified employees, and the reason why the district received the money.

Read the full report here.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.